August 28th, 2017

Questioning the Two-Hour Rule for Studying

By:

studying in the library

Faculty often tell students to study two hours for every credit hour. Where and when did this rule of thumb originate? I’ve been unable to track down its genesis. I suspect it started around 1909, when the Carnegie Unit (CU) was accepted as the standard measure of class time. [See Heffernan (1973) and Shedd (2003) for thorough histories of the credit hour.] The U.S. Department of Education defines the credit hour as “One hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out of class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester…” The expectation was the norm when I was in college in the 1980s and more seasoned professors indicate it was expected in the 1970s too.

Is the two-hour rule relevant today? Why two hours? Why not one? Or three? Study resources and tools have changed dramatically in the past century. Typing papers, researching, and collaborating required a lot more time in prior decades. Personal computers, mobile devices, and the Internet have dramatically changed what goes on in and out of class, yet the two-hour rule persists.

What should be done during study time? Of bigger concern than the emphasis on time is the lack of direction about what to do during those hours. Some schools (Binghamton University, is one) require that course syllabi state what students might do outside of class, “completing assigned readings, studying for tests and examinations, participating in lab sessions, preparing written assignments, and other course-related tasks.” That’s a start, but it’s not enough.

Before we blame students by saying they should already know what to do, let’s consider an example. I studied classical piano for a dozen years. Each week the teacher would instruct on notation, technique, and interpretation. Lessons always included detailed descriptions and a discussion of what I was to do during practice. How long I was to practice was only an estimate. The emphasis was on what needed to be done, not how long it would take. Practice time consisted of warm-up exercises, scales, and work on compositions. I didn’t always practice diligently (sorry, Mrs. Farr), but I consistently knew what I should be doing during practice to improve as a pianist.

Can most students say the same? A statement on the syllabus, particularly one that emphasizes policies, probably doesn’t get much attention from students during study time. Likewise, a teacher’s admonition to “study X hours per week” is easily forgotten or ignored. In addition, we lose credibility with our students if we tell them to “study two hours per credit” for no other reason than that’s the way it’s always been done. We should be more concerned with outcomes than time.

Shift focus from time to task. I recognize that telling students to study doesn’t mean it will happen. I’m also not suggesting everything students do outside of class should be graded. But instead of telling students how long to study, emphasize mastery. Provide examples of active learning strategies so they can use their time more effectively. In addition to active reading assignments and graded homework, the following activities promote engagement and go beyond students’ typical study strategies, such as creating note cards or “looking over” their notes.

  • Practice Problems: Provide extra, ungraded problems. Suggest they mix different types of problems to simulate an exam. Ask them to solve problems they’ve created. Provide additional problems and hold back the solutions to allow students some time to work without the answers. Consider incorporating a couple of these questions on exams to motivate practice.
  • Rewrite Notes in Your Own Words: Rewrites are an opportunity to “replay” what was said and done in class. Be intentional about asking students if they have questions about what they’ve written in their notes. Occasionally set aside a couple of minutes in class for students to compare notes and seek clarification.
  • Concept Maps: Students can use note cards to accomplish deep understanding if they try to connect single pieces of information on each card to other concepts through a concept map. These can be drawn by hand or created with software. Emphasize substance over form. The purpose is to make connections and see the content from different perspectives (Berry & Chew, 2008).
  • Respond to Learning Reflection Prompts: How is X related to Y? What other information would you want to find? What was the most challenging topic in the chapter? How does this material connect to what you learned before? Reflection prompts promote connections across topics, helping students see content more holistically. Incorporate reflection in graded work as appropriate. Reflection assignments can be independent and ungraded or incorporated in class or online.
  • Quiz to Learn: Provide sample questions or ask students to create multiple-choice questions as part of their study activities. Occasionally use one or two student-created questions on exams, or reward exceptional examples with extra credit.
  • Crib Sheets: Even if they’re not allowed during an exam, the process of identifying what to put on a “cheat” sheet and organizing the information promotes thinking about the relative importance and relationships among concepts. Set aside a few minutes of class time for students to compare and contrast their sheets as part of student-led exam review.

Join Lolita Paff on Sept. 27 for Aligning Student and Faculty Perceptions of Rigor. During this 60-minute online seminar, she’ll explain how teachers can define and support academic rigor in a way that inspires students to think critically about their learning goals. Learn More »

I think it’s time to retire the two-hour rule. For many students, studying is something only done before an exam and homework is completed because it’s graded. If we want to develop self-directed learners, these narrow conceptions of what it means to “study” must change. Teachers broaden and reshape students’ perceptions of homework and study by de-emphasizing time and focusing on substance. We can help students see class time, study time, and homework as an integrated system of activities designed to advance learning. We do that by being as specific and intentional about structuring students’ out-of-class study activities, graded or otherwise, as we are about what goes on during class.

References:
Berry, J.W. & Chew, S.L. (2008). Improving Learning Through Interventions of Student-Generated Questions and Concept Maps. Teaching of Psychology, 35: 305-312.

Binghamton University Syllabus Policy. https://www.binghamton.edu/academics/provost/faculty-staff-handbook/handbook-vii.html#A8 Accessed: July 26, 2017.

Heffernan, J.M. (1973). The Credibility of the Credit Hour: The History, Use and Shortcomings of the Credit System. The Journal of Higher Education, 44(1): 61-72.

Shedd, J.M. (2003). The History of the Student Credit Hour, New Directions for Higher Education, 122 (Summer): 3-12.

US Department of Education Credit Hour Definition. https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?rgn=div8&node=34:3.1.3.1.1.1.23.2 Accessed: July 26, 2017

Dr. Lolita Paff is an associate professor of business and economics at Penn State Berks. She also serves on the advisory board of the Teaching Professor Conference.


  • George Stanton

    I was an undergraduate in the early 60’s and we were given the two-hour guideline as well, but I never perceived it as a rule. I have often (and still do) discuss it in intro level classes. I consider it an attention-getting tactic. A number of freshmen now come from high schools where efforts were made to minimize homework and get assignments done during the day. In part, I think this was a response to the differential access high school students have to expensive technology. Technology has increased the speed in which tasks can be completed, but it has also made it possible (and possible becomes expected) to do work more quickly but it has also made it possible to access more references and to do much more sophisticated work. I find that I can do many tasks more quickly, but I also have to now incorporate performance elements that used to be beyond my reach. In graduate school, making a graph for publication was a highly tedious process, taking many hours. Now the computer will make all sorts of graphs in a flash, but there are also much more sophisticated analyses available and because they are available, to do competitive work, they must be utilized. In discussing time on task I would tell my students that if they were making A’s and B’s they probably have a reasonably good study regimen. However, if they are making D’s and F’s and are only spending 2 hours a week outside of class time, they might well be able to improve matters by investing more time.

    • Laura Shulman

      Might be interesting to take a survey of the students: how many hours a week outside of class them spend on their work for this class? Equate that with their grade average. Results might prove (or disprove) a correlation between how much time they spend outside of class vs performance on assignments and exams.

  • Gonzalo Munevar

    My students always had to read the material beforehand very carefully and come to class prepared for rigorous discussion. I never told them how long they had to study. Over the years I did ask from time to time how long it took them to prepare for class. Two hours, on average.

  • Laura Shulman

    I have tended to equate being in school full time (15 credit hours a semester) with being a full-time job. 15 hours in the classroom alone is hardly full-time work. Add to that an additional 2 hours a week per course credit and you get 45 hours/week focus on school work = more equivalent to a full time job.
    This may or may not be how the “2 hour rule” originated, but it does seem reasonable to compare being a full-time student with having a full-time job. It also helps students balance their other activities (e.g. paid work, friends and fun, family/home responsibilities) with school and helps them to realize that if they work full time at some job they maybe should not also try to be a full-time student (or vice versa: need to reconsider priorities: are you a student first or a worker first?).
    Those observations aside, you do make a good point about focus on task being more the point than focus on time. And you also offer a number of good “active learning” techniques to bring into the classroom (in hopes that students might take the time to prepare for such outside of the classroom). Thank you for those constructive ideas. I may just try a few of them.

  • Julienne Empric

    In doing the math, I realized some time ago that the two-hour rule-of-thumb meant more or less the equivalent of a forty-hour week: exactly what my students’ peers who did not attend college would be working at a full-time job to earn a wage and benefits. So whenever I mention the rule of thumb, I link it to